I never thought that I would say this, but I miss Charlotte Beers.
It's true that during her relatively brief tenure as Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy, I winced every time I heard her code-switching in and out of advertising-speak, but I didn't appreciate our national good fortune at the time. At the very least, this former executive of J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather could be frank about her Public Diplomacy agenda. Compared to today's covert information war that is outsourced, yet funded by -- and occasionally aimed at-- taxpayers, public diplomacy in 2001-2002 ages well in its tolerance of deliberative discourse.
For those who have forgotten, here are three excerpts from her press conference of November 14, 2001, in which Beers argued for the importance of "emotional" appeals, "poster" figures, "brands," and keeping our eyes on the "sales curve":
#1 (Beers on the role of public diplomacy)
"One of the things that strikes me is that as essential as our offices are, our policy statements, our people who speak every day in behalf of the United States policies, these tend to be communications that are extremely reasoned and rational, and yet we know that much of the other side of this argument is intensely emotional and comes from a very different place than rationality and reason. I think one of the things that means is that we have to put forward something we might have all taken for granted, which is the US values. They're just as important as our policies."
#2 (Beers on the Executive Branch)
"And 'poster man' -- well, you know, in a way, our poster people are President Bush and Secretary Powell, whom I think are pretty inspiring symbols of the brand, the United States. "
#3 (Beers on Islam)
"Their conversion rate is astonishing -- a 30 percent conversion in each year is about the fastest growing religion in this country, and a good number for any sales team . . . Here's a sales curve any corporation would envy. These are the percent of mosques founded in the US over the last few years."
When Beers introduced the Shared Values program to the National Press Club on December 18, 2002, I was probably naively rooting for the protestors who interrupted her slick presentation with this chant: "You're selling war, and we're not buying! You're selling war, and we're not buying!" When Beers complained, "I think I've just lost the camera to a singing choir," at the time I might have even been pleased to see her be upstaged, particularly when she uttered gems like the following:
"The important thing about our products is that they have to be marketed. We can't assume that anyone is going to be assertive enough to pick up our website: reproduce, pull it down, and move on. And so we are learning to use the modern marketing tools of banner headlines, linking in to other sites, making sure that we have speakers who use this materials or who can use it, so it's much more than a databank."
But now we have Public Diplomacy wizards who never leave Madison Avenue or sit in government offices. Isn't it better at least to have someone to hold accountable? Isn't a figurehead who engages in open debate better than an unseen corporate contractor?
To Beers' credit she acknowledged the importance of a transnational demographic which has increasingly become the object of suspicion and scrutiny, and she tried to include them in developing materials about Muslim life in the United States. Furthermore, by looking at web traffic, she also recognized the importance of distributed global communication. She may not have read Étienne Balibar on transnational subjectivity or Manuel Castells on the network society, but she knew enough about trend-watching to get the general idea.
Besides, she brought us the "Muslim Rap" campaign, one of the best ways my tax dollars have been spent this millennium. Admire the image I have reproduced above for a trip down memory lane.
For more on this subject from the design community, see the recent AIGA Forum on "Propagandizing Propaganda." To see the current propaganda czar, who wields much less executive authority, check out Karen Hughes on Ask the White House or review her qualifications on the State Department website.